Keep your eyes on the prize - achieving impact versus measuring impact

Posted on October 26, 2016

Social businesses need to measure their impact, but their first priority must always be to run a sustainable organisation. In this blog written for UnLtd, Peter Babudu sets out how you can do that, while also delivering practical, proportionate approaches to impact measurement.

Running a venture and ensuring you have a positive social impact can be hard things to combine. As the fate of 4Children and the challenges facing probation service providers show, balancing the need to service debts, satisfy investors and deliver against stretching contracts can often be too much to maintain for even the most resourceful of social entrepreneurs.

It’s an issue that we at The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP) have been looking at as part of our work with UnLtd on the Big Venture Challenge (BVC) – providing impact support to a range of promising social ventures.

All of these ventures are wrestling with the practical demands of sustaining themselves in tough economic conditions. Their impact depends on their survival as much, if not more so, than the other way around.

Balancing action with evaluation

First and foremost, these ventures exist to make a difference in people’s lives. Whether their mission is to help children from all backgrounds and circumstances to develop and thrive or to empower people to step away from their involvement in crime, they have impact at their very core.

Yet it’s also clear from high-profile examples like Kids Company and others that you cannot assume, just because impact is core to your business’ purpose, that your business is having an impact.

That’s not to say that your impact measurement should get in the way of your delivery. Impact measurement has to be appropriate to the stage, context and complexities of interventions. The recent publicity about the lack of impact from the money spent on the Troubled  Families Programme, which has received considerable funding, is a case-in-point.

As a number of organisations, and the families they have worked with, have responded to the controversy, the issue seems to be as much about the timeframes set for impact to be delivered as identifying the methods that are appropriate for understanding impact in messy, real life contexts.

Measuring impact in the real world

TSIP has first-hand experience of dealing with the challenges of providing reliable impact measurement results outside of tidy circumstances. We recently designed and delivered an evaluation of volunteering programmes operating within nine hospitals through Helping in Hospitals (a programme jointly funded by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health, with support from Nesta).

This work included conducting several comparison groups on new programmes running in hectic, under-resourced and often life-critical environments, where getting surveys ticked is not always easy or even appropriate.

With that in mind, we took a context and partner-driven approach. Our focus was on close collaboration and regularly troubleshooting the many little challenges that can often lead to evaluations reporting no significant results.

It wasn’t easy. But ultimately, even in contexts as challenging as this, and on small budgets, we were able to conduct successful evaluations that, in a number of cases, showed statistically significant positive results.

What did we learn?

The first questions we had to ask were – what is the appropriate type of evaluation for your situation? How fixed is your work? What will you use an evaluation for? What is your time frame and financial budget and how unsure are you about your impact?

These are all tricky questions that need careful consideration. Often, the answer is that ventures – like those on BVC – are at an early stage: just securing financial sustainability and working with people they’re close to and already know well.

Based on our experience on previous scaling programmes, and currently on BVC, the focus in these circumstances will often be on ensuring that these ventures can give a clear account of the impact that they intend to deliver, and on helping them to think through the most appropriate systems to put in place for when they do scale and need to be able to still say with confidence what impact they have on their beneficiaries.

Lessons for social ventures

So yes, measure your impact. But also make sure you have your eyes on the field as well as on the scoreboard. In the short term, that means running a sustainable business, staying close to the people you work for and not doing harm.

Be clear on the impact that you want to have, then put in place systems to ensure you achieve that in the long term. Most importantly, don’t lose sight of your prize: making a difference to people’s lives.

If you’re interested in discussing these issues further and TSIP’s work, please contact us at: contact@tsip.co.uk or via @peterbabudu on Twitter.